Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Play! (part 1)

After tying up loose ends of various other research projects these past 4-5 years, I am now officially investing my intellectual energy into a new book project on play. Over the course of the months and years to come I hope to return to regular, substantive posting on the ideas for this book as they evolve and develop. This post touches briefly on some preliminaries. What is play?

Play is notoriously difficult to define. The more I read the play literature the greater my appreciation for the title of B.S.S's book The Ambiguity of Play. There are different types of play that interest me for my argument- physical, social and imaginative play.

The most significant insight about play, the one that will orient the normative political theory I intend to develop based on play research, is that play is evolution based. The fact that play is evolution based means that the political theory I develop will take our evolved biological history seriously. Rather than falsely assuming, as rational choice theory does, that we are "homo economicus" [the rational man], the theory I develop highlights our nature as "homo ludens" (Man the player).

In addition to the evolutionary story of our play nature, two other key aspects of play I plan to emphasize are the facts that (1) play is fun, and (2) play is developmentally beneficial. I will have much more to say about these points in due time.

For now, how should we define play? What is play? Here are some main contenders:

C. Garvey (p. 4) identifies the following features of play:

(1) Play is pleasurable, enjoyable. Even when not actually accompanied by signs of mirth, it is still positively valued by the player.
(2) Play has no extrinsic goals. Its motivations are intrinsic and serve no other objectives. In fact, it is more an enjoyment of means than an effort devoted to some particular end. In utilitarian terms, it is inherently unproductive.
(3) Play is spontaneous and voluntary. It is not obligatory but is freely chosen by the player.
(4) Play involves some active engagement on the part of the player.

S. Brown describes play as "preconscious and preverbal- it arises out of ancient biological structures that existed before our consciousness or ability to speak” (2009, 15). According to Brown (2009), play is apparently purposeless (done for its own sake), voluntary, has inherent attraction, frees us from time, diminishes consciousness of self, and has improvisational potential and continuation of desire.

And S. Eberle defines play as having the following 6 characteristics: anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise.

I will have more to say about defining play as I undertake more serious research on this topic in the months to come, and try to piece together a coherent story about the normative significance of taking our playful nature seriously.

One final point-- why focus on play? To most of my colleagues this might seem like a trivial, perhaps even objectionable, topic to focus my attention on when there are so many pressing societal problems in the world. Of all the issues I could address- from global justice, to racism, patriarchy and climate change- why the focus on play? I have a lengthy answer to this question, but for now I will just quote from Brian Sutton-Smith, who has this to say about what the opposite of play is (p. 198):

The opposite of play... is not a present reality, or work, it is a vacillation, or worse, it is depression. To play is to act out and be willful, as if one is assured of one's prospects.

I think, given the current state of Western democratic culture, there is a very important message to be heard by the emphasis on play. And I hope to spend a good deal of time thinking through what the message ought to be.